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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Living in a Bubble

This is another one of my random musings. I was sitting here thinking in the wee hours of the morning, just thinking about how in just a few more hours my wife is going to be on a dive boat out in the ocean from the Bahamas. We thought at first, essentially she would be totally out of contact for 5 days. But a quick check of the coverage maps revealed that out in the ocean, there are these tiny islands near where she is diving. They look like sandbars on the map, tiny islands compared even to the Bahamas. And on these tiny little dirt clods, someone has stuck a cellphone tower. So, maybe I will be getting daily reports on the observed sea-life.

I began to remember the stuff from the Tech Bubble days. I remember sitting at the base of a waterfall in Yosemite National Park with my first cell phone. It was about the size and weight of a brick (no kidding, it was that big). I phoned my parents from the base of the waterfall and said, "Hey mom and dad, I'm in the middle of nowhere, hear the waterfall?" It was just amazing to me that you could phone from the middle of a forest. That phone was subsidized by the company I was working for at the time, which allowed a young family to afford it. It was an era of intellectual irreverence where the sky was the limit. I just had to put up this old picture from that era. And yes, I actually did wear these clothes to work. The company wanted my mind, not my social compliance.

In fact, the company found 250 compulsive, obsessive, perfectionist souls, gave them half a billion dollars, wired their cubes with fiber optics when everyone else thought 10 megabit networking was fast, and wired our houses with network connections to the company. We never slept and we worked ourselves into the ground. Some of us didn't fare so well with the governor removed from our engines. It is truly scary when a company profiles their prospective hires and people you may rarely run into become the people you work with everyday. You are surrounded and drowning in your own flaws everywhere you look. It was fantasy money and fantasy goals that drove fantasy expectations. It was the bubble, where seeing your family required precision planning. I used to take my daughter to work some evenings. It was always easier to talk to her if I got her to do my work so I could focus on talking to her. She was better at multitasking. She drove her Montessori teachers at that time, who felt there was a definite sequential way that everything had to work, totally out of their minds when she would lay assignments in 3 different subjects out on the desk and work them simultaneously. They used to complain about it to me. I lived in a bubble. So I responded, huh? The bubble was good for my wife as well because after halfway finishing 5 different degrees, she found one she liked; she finished it and her career took off like a rocket. Yes, her company footed the bill with fantasy money.

The thing about living in a bubble is that you can't see the walls. You don't realize you are in a bubble. I took my daughter to see NASA (the space center) south of Houston (my parents lived not too far away at the time). We visited their bookstore and one of those strange happenings occurred you never connect to anything else. Two elementary school teachers were talking about a book they had found, saying how great it would be for their 6th grade class. My daughter turns to me and says, "But dad, you read that to me in first grade." I just shrugged. I didn't really connect that with the fact that for some reason, my smiling child was breaking pencils in half occasionally during her Montessori elementary classes. Puzzling. We were still in the bubble.

As the bubble progressed, schools began to crop up based on new ideas. New ways to teach that would really propel kids learning. My daughter went to the new middle school. They used and taught the use of computers extensively. My daughter seemed to figure out a neat web trick to protect images on a website. It took some poor guy at Yahoo a while to realize he was trying to squeeze that bit of tech from a seventh grader. He kind of lost interest when he realized who was at the other end of the connection.

Well hmm. I guess new isn't always better. The bubble popped. And innovation had the life crushed out of it. Meanwhile, my expectations of the new school had the life crushed out of them. What a disaster. A bit of screaming at the science curriculum (by my kid). The school was a disaster. The tech industry was a disaster. Fantasy money disappeared. School improvement money disappeared. And so on. And it was just a downhill slide for California schools.

So now for the punch line. Many of the target readership of my book were born around the time the bubble popped, around the time innovation and unbridled intellectual curiosity were crushed to death in favor of survivalistic strategies in approach to life, education, work. The bubble money is gone. Normal funding is failing. What will be the future for these teen readers? How will we ever rekindle the innovative spark in them? There are no large sums of money to be thrown at it. But there are many of us bubble survivors still around. And we still dream. Which is why I wrote my book. To instill a few dreams. After all, dreams form the basis for innovation.

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